Court Royal/Chapter II

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The woman entered the shop of Mr. Lazarus. When there she stood trembling and looking down, confused or frightened, whilst the child at her side peered about with eager eyes at the articles with which the shop was crowded.

Mr. Lazarus was a dark man, of distinct Israelitish type, his hair cut short, like moleskin, but his jaws and chin covered with a bristly scrub. He was wont to shave once a week, and went bristly and black between times. His eye ran over the customer, and took stock of what she wore. He soon satisfied himself that she had nothing about her in his way, except a gold wedding-ring.

Mr. Lazarus looked suspiciously and threateningly at the child. He detested children. They played marbles, ball, tip-cat on the pavement, and broke his windows. They shouted after him, ‘Rags and bones!’ or ‘Old clo’!’ through their noses, or put their heads into his shop, and asked how he was off for soap, or ‘Any black puddings or bacon rashers to-day.’

The pawnbroker was frequently engaged, behind his counter, whittling at a stick, lying in wait to rush forth with it upon the urchins who offended him. It was rarely, however, that he caught the delinquents. He more often fell upon, or fell over, an inoffensive and unoffending child, and rattled his stick about its sides. Then the parents—the mother certainly—would appear on the scene and join in the noise, belabouring Mr. Lazarus with her tongue. When matters reached this point, Mr. Lazarus would return to his shop, with the stick tucked under his arm, growling Levitical imprecations.

‘What do you want?’ asked Mr. Lazarus, looking up from an account-book, and laying the stick on the table.

‘Please, sir,’ answered the woman in a faint, frightened voice, ‘I want a set of dry clothes for myself and Joanna.’

‘Certainly,’ answered the Jew with alacrity. ‘Tumbled into the Pool, eh? About what figure, pray?’

‘This is all I have,’ answered she, extending her hand and opening it.

‘One half-crown, two shillings, one’—he rang it—‘bad, two sixpences, and eight threepenny bits, also one French ha’penny, which don’t pass current. I return you the shilling. You may be able to get others to take it, less wideawake. That makes six-and-six. Can’t do much for you at that price.’

Then the poor creature said, ‘Please, sir, you’ll be liberal, I hope. I’ve nothing else, and am wet to the marrow. I have brought the child. I thought to raise a few shillings on her.’

‘The child! What do you mean?’

‘My darling, my Joanna.’

Mr. Lazarus turned a green hue.

‘You’re trying to make sport of me!’ he exclaimed, clutching at his stick. ‘You’ve been put up to it. I won’t stand this sort of game. Get out at once.’

‘Please, sir,’ said the woman, trembling with cold and alarm, ‘the gentleman outside as fished me from the Pool got up a subscription for me, that I might have dry clothes. I’ve no more, but if you’d consent to take the child——

‘I take the child—I—I!’ screamed Mr. Lazarus. ‘Children are the plague of my life. I wouldn’t have one if offered for nothing.’

‘Then, sir, I must take the money elsewhere.’

‘Oh!’ said the pawnbroker, ‘six-and-six is it? Pity it should be lost. Do you think the gentlemen would subscribe a little more? The charitable feelings, when well worked, are very yielding. If you’d make believe to be desperate, and about to fall or throw yourself in again, maybe the collecting cap would go round again, and the sum disposable mount to eleven-and-six. At eleven-and-six I might consider you. I can’t so much as look at you for six-and-six. Just cast your eyes over this myrtle-green trimmed with cream lace! Don’t it make your mouth water?’

‘I’m watering all over,’ sighed the woman. ‘I only want ordinary dry clothes.’

‘Or this Dolly Varden with panniers, a little passed in style, and a kiss-me-quick bonnet. Make you quite irresistible, miss—beg pardon—ma’am, I mean.’

‘I have no more. I can get no more. I need only a cotton dress and underclothing.’

‘Lor’ bless you!’ exclaimed the Jew, ‘what does that latter signify so long as the gown is gorgeous? Try to screw some more from the gents outside. If you cried, now, in a proper heart-rending way?’

The woman shook her head despairingly. ‘I did not ask for this. I want only necessaries. Why did they not let me drown, and be at rest?’

‘What, ma’am?’ said the Jew. ‘Drown with an available six-and-six on the quay awaiting you! The thing is ridiculous!’

‘Please, sir, will you take the child?’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Lazarus testily, turning green again.

‘I mean my Joanna,’ answered the woman, pointing to the little girl at her side.

Mr. Lazarus waxed wroth. ‘Do I take little girls? Eh! look round and see what are the articles in my shop. Dolls; yes, they don’t eat. China figures; yes, they don’t wear out clothes. I’m not a cannibal. Can’t make butcher’s meat out of children. I wish I might. I’d set up shambles and reduce their nunbers.’

‘I don’t want to sell Joanna,’ said the woman in a dull, distressed voice, ‘I wouldn’t sell her for a thousand guineas. But I thought, no offence, I might pawn her for a time, so as to make up the difference, and get a fit out of dry clothes for both of us.’

‘Be off with you! This is no foundling hospital where every troublesome child may be left. Get out of this, or I’ll rattle my stick about the bones of the monkey.’

‘I have nowhere to go to, sir. I have passed my word not to fling myself into the sea again. You shall have Joanna, sir, for half-a-sovereign.’

‘Half-a-sovereign!’ cried Mr. Lazarus, starting back. ‘Have I human ears to hear such a proposition? Half-a-sovereign for a little maggot that’ll eat her own weight of nourishing victuals every day! I won’t have her at any price. Chuck her into Sutton Pool.’

‘I won’t be drownded,’ said the child resolutely.

‘I throwed her in once, and her crawled out like a spider running along its cobweb.’

‘Do with her what you will. I’ll have nothing to say to her,’ cried the angry pawnbroker. Then working himself into fury, ‘Will you be off? Look what a pond you two have made in my shop. The floor is swimming. A mop won’t take it up in a week; and all the iron-ware, and the forks and knives, will be rusted, and the cloth and leather mildewed.’

‘Well, sir,’ sighed the woman, ‘give me back the money, and I’ll go.’

‘Six-and-six!’ said Mr. Lazarus in a softer tone, ‘six-and-six is six-and-six. Can’t we deal reasonably and quietly? What is the advantage of your working yourself up into fever and fury?’

‘Please, sir,’ said the woman with pertinacity, such as could hardly be looked for in one so timid and dazed, ‘I can have a situation if I get rid of the child.’

‘Well, what is that to me?’

‘I won’t sell her, sir! and I won’t send her to the Union. If you’ll be so kind as to take her, and lend me half-a-sovereign on her, I’ll throw in my wedding-ring beside.’

‘Let me look at it. I dare be sworn it is brass.’

‘We were well off when us married, and could afford it,’ explained the woman. Then, whilst the Jew was examining the ring, and testing it with acid, she said, ‘My Joanna is of pure gold. You’d better take her, sir. You’d never repent. I reckon she can do most things. Her can wash——

‘I have no washing done here,’ said Lazarus, shortly. ‘Never found the need. The Barbican is poisoned with the smell of yellow soap and the reek of drying linen.’

‘Then, sir, her can cook you a rasher of bacon——

‘I never eat of the pig,’ screamed Lazarus, and spat on the floor.

‘Her can kindle a fire——

‘And waste tons of coal.’

‘Her can nurse the babies——

‘I’ve no babies. I don’t want ’em. I wouldn’t have ’em.’

‘Her can run messages like a greyhound, and mind the shop when you are out; and should burglars try to break in, her would scream, and scream, and scream.’

‘Eh!’ said Lazarus, looking up, interested. ‘Was that she screaming half-an-hour ago?’

‘It was. Her can scream when proper. Other times she’s as still as a mouse.’

Mr. Lazarus considered for a few moments. He rubbed his bristly chin, blew his nose in a fashion almost lost in this age of refinement. Then he leaned both elbows on the counter and stared at the girl. Mr. Lazarus was nervous about burglars. Unwittingly the mother had touched a fibre in his soul that quivered. Report credited him with vast wealth, with money, plate, jewellery, stored in the crazy old house. More than once he had been alarmed by attempts to break in. He had an infirmity which he could not master. He slept so soundly that nothing woke him. The Barbican was a noisy place by night as well as by day. Tipsy sailors rambled about it, drunken women squabbled, foreign sailors fought on the quay. The ear in time became so accustomed to noises that they ceased to disturb. Lazarus had resolved to get a dog, but begrudged the food it would consume. Following this train of thought, he said to himself, ‘Half-a-sov.! I could get a mongrel pup for less.’

‘Sir,’ argued the woman, ‘with a pup you wouldn’t get a gold wedding-ring.’

‘That is true, but a dog eats bones, and girls eat meat.’

‘Oh! my Joanna hasn’t much of that. A crust of bread and some dripping—her never gets beyond that. Besides, you’d have to pay tax on a dog, not on a girl.’

‘That also is true, but a dog grows his own coat, and a girl grows out of every suit you put her into.’

‘The girl is a golden girl, gold through and through,’ said the mother. ‘She wakes early, and has her hand in work all day; is never idle, never plays, never neglects a duty; try her.’

Mr. Lazarus came from behind the counter, put his hand under Joanna’s chin, and thrust the wet hair from her brow. He pursed up his lips, half closed his eyes, and studied her critically.

Then Joanna, surmising that Mr. Lazarus was about to relent, put forth her full powers of resistance. She clawed at his coat, which being rusty gave way; she bit at his hands, and made them bleed; she kicked his shins, and forced him to caper; and she yelled, as surely no mortal lungs had yelled before.

The men outside drew near the shop, flattened their noses against the window-panes and looked in, then grinned, rubbed their hands, laughed in each other’s faces, and said: ‘Her’s born to make a noise in the world, no mistake—an irrepressible.’ Then they backed. The screams pierced the drums of their ears like bradawls.

Joanna danced and tore, and shrieked and writhed. ‘I am not good,’ she cried; ‘I am not golden. I am bad, and brazen. I’m a little devil. Don’t buy me. I’m worth nothing at all. I scream all day. All night as well. No one can sleep in the house where I am. I never work. I scat (break) all the cloam (crockery). I smash the windows. I set a house on fire. I’m a devil; I’m a devil.’

In vain did the poor mother reason with, and try to pacify the child. The little creature was as one possessed. She shook herself in convulsions of rage, so that the water spirted off her, as from a poodle drying itself after a bath.

Mr. Lazarus was fain to put the counter between himself and the child. He was not angry; he looked on approvingly.

‘With burglars,’ said he, nodding to the mother, ‘this would be first-rate.’

Then the girl tore round the shop, kicking the counter, and dashing against the goods piled in the corners.

‘Look here!’ said Mr. Lazarus. ‘Do you see all these walking-sticks? Thorn and bamboo they are. I’ll try their respective merits on your ribs, you wild cat, unless you desist.’ Then to the mother, ‘She will do. I take her. You shall have the money. I must stop the noise first; there is no dealing because of it.’

Then, feebly assisted by the woman, the pawnbroker carried the child, kicking, tearing, howling, into the kitchen, to the coalhole, into which he thrust her. Then he tried to lock her in, but she dashed herself against the door, and beat the lock when he attempted to fasten it. After many efforts he succeeded in turning the key.

‘There,’ said he, ‘squall yourself hoarse. Bang your hands and knees raw. No one will heed.’

He returned to the shop with the mother, who was trembling and crying.

He shut the kitchen door, and the shop door leading into the house likewise; nevertheless the cries and thumpings from the coalhole were still audible, though distant and muffled.

Mr. Lazarus wiped his brow. ‘There is life in the child. There are will and pertinacity,’ he said. ‘She knows her own mind, which is more than do many. Here is the half-sovereign.’

‘Thank you, sir. You understand, I don’t sell her.’

‘Of course not, of course not.’

‘I only pawn her,’ said the woman, timidly.

‘To be sure, to be sure.’

‘And, sir, I want my ticket.’

‘What ticket?’

‘The pawn-ticket, sir, so that when I bring the money I may have my child back out of pawn.’

‘By all means,’ said Mr. Lazarus. ‘And when shall we say the time is up?’

‘Well, sir, if I may make it seven years, I’ll take it as a favour. Joanna is now twelve, and in seven she’ll be nineteen. I may be able to redeem her in a few months, but I cannot tell. I’m going away in a ship, and I don’t know where to. I should like a margin, so as to give me plenty of time to look about, and scrape.’

‘Certainly,’ said Mr. Lazarus. ‘Seven years let it be. The interest will be ten per cent. A shilling a year. In seven years that will be seven shillings for interest. I’ll write you out the ticket at once. Hand me over the wedding-ring again. You took it up just now. The half-sovereign and the six-and-six—less twopence for the ticket, that makes sixteen-and-four. This is what you want to lay out in dry clothes. We will see if we can suit you. The myrtle-green and cream lace won’t do. Style unbecoming. Something warm and useful. I understand. Here is the ticket. Number six hundred and seventeen your daughter is, ma’am. Six hundred and seventeen. Now your name, please?’

‘Marianne Rosevere.’

‘And my little maid is——

‘Six hundred and seventeen.’